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Non-Review Review: The Laundromat

The Laundromat is as messy and awkward as it is ambitious and creative.

At the very least, The Laundromat demonstrates that director Steven Soderbergh is as playful as he has ever been. Soderbergh is fifty-six years old. He is supposedly retired. However, Soderbergh remains vital and energised. Soderbergh’s filmography is ecclectic, with projects varying wildly in terms of tone and quality. However, a willingness to experiment and to try new things remains one of the most unifying threads within his expansive filmography. While some older directors get stuck in familiar patterns and routines, Soderbergh seems pathologically anxious about the possibility of stasis.

A wealth of revelations.

This is most obvious in terms of craft, with Soderbergh often tweaking how he produces and distributes his output. Soderbergh directed the entirety of The Knick, embracing the potential of television as a storytelling medium beyond the familiarity of cinema. He has spent his retirement re-editing classic films, reflecting the ascent of “remix” culture. He shot all of Unsane on an iPhone, seizing on the potential of new technology to alter the film-making paradigm. He partnered with Netflix for the release of High Flying Bird, taking advantage of the streaming service’s deep pockets and esoteric sensibilities.

The Laundromat is not a huge leap for Soderbergh in terms of craft. Instead, it’s an ambitious film in terms of narrative. The Laundromat represents an effort on the part of the director to map the complicated and corrosive mechanisms of global capitalism through a series of sprawling and open-ended vignettes intended to sketch the outline of something far larger than any single story. It’s a familiar Soderbergh premise; the director has long been fascinated by the way in which systems and structures work – especially those built around capitalism or globalisation. It doesn’t always work, but is never less than fascinating.

Boxed in.

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Non-Review Review: High Flying Bird

High Flying Bird is a quietly radical movie about a sports agent.

This should not be a surprise. Director Steven Soderbergh is a director fascinated with systems, particularly capitalist systems. Unsane might have taken the form of a trashy and tacky nineties thriller, but it was primarily interested in exploring the horrors of a psychiatric industrial complex. Side Effects touched upon the way in which pharmaceutical companies and legal systems work. Contagion was a story about structural responses to a viral infection that spread rapidly through an increasingly interconnected world.

Managing the situation.

With that in mind, it makes sense that Steven Soderbergh’s movie about the NBA lockout of 2011 would feature very little actual basketball. Sure, footage of games plays on several of the large flatscreens adorning bar or office walls, but it’s just window dressing. Just when it looks like Soderbergh might actually show a game, he cuts away dramatically to a shot of a billionaire’s daughter carrying her dog on board a private jet, flanked by two helpful staff holding umbrellas to protect her from the wind. High Flying Bird is about basket ball as an institution, but not a sport.

A cynic would argue that  High Flying Bird is about basket ball in the same way that the NBA is about basket ball, interested in institutions and structures more than the actual sport itself. Such a cynic would be right at home in the world of High Flying Bird, where characters talk freely and repeatedly about the  “game that’s been played behind the game”, “the game that they made over the game”, or “a game on top of a game.” Professional basket ball is not about basket ball, High Flying Bird argues coherently and consistently. Professional basket ball is about profiting off basket ball.

“What are you doing here?”
“Beatz me.”

High Flying Bird is drawn from a script by Tarell Alvin McCraney, who is perhaps best known for working on the story for Moonlight with Barry Jenkins. Indeed, the cast is anchored by Moonlight co-star André Holland. High Flying Bird recalls Moneyball, in that it is a film about sport that does not feature sport, understanding that the activity does not exist in a vacuum. For High Flying Bird, professional basket ball is about money and power and race, and the real game is being played away from where the camera and the audience is looking.

The only thing that keeps High Flying Bird from being a slam dunk is a lack of focus. High Flying Bird doesn’t entirely trust its cast and its premise to hold the audience’s attention through all of these conversations about abstract concepts layered upon abstract concepts placed over a game that the film only shows in the background. As a result, McCraney and Soderbergh crowd out the story with subplots designed to generate human interest; a tragic back story, an emerging romance. These elements ultimately distract from the most interesting aspects of the film.

This screenshot is also about capitalism. Somehow.

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Non-Review Review: Ocean’s 8

Ocean’s 8 is mostly a charming and inoffensive heist movie that coasts off the charisma of its central cast.

This isn’t necessarily a criticism of itself. There’s nothing wrong in watching an ensemble including Cate Blanchett and Sandra Bullock bounce off one another, performers who are both talented screen and genuine old-fashioned movie stars. As with the series of films that obviously inspired (and named) Ocean’s 8, the cast have an easy chemistry with one another. Star power goes a long way, and there’s something almost refreshing in seeing a movie that runs almost exclusively on it in this age where these sorts of high-profile movies are largely driven franchising, high concepts and intellectual property.

Properly trained for this.

Of course, there’s some small complication in that in that Ocean’s 8 feels at times like an effort to split the difference between being a star-driven caper movie and also the latest installment in a larger recognisable franchise. Indeed, some of the movie’s weakest moment lean most heavily on nods and winks to the trilogy of Steven Soderbergh movies that provided a launching pad for this female-star-driven caper. The title character is Debbie Ocean, revealed to be the sister of Danny Ocean; that is the least of it. (Even the choice of “8” in the title seems designed to leave room for two more installments making a trilogy.)

Still movie stars are a dying breed, so it’s a novelty to see so many of them congregating in the same place and to see a movie that understands the appeal of watching confident performers playing competent characters who are constantly in motion. Ocean’s 8 lacks some of the more undervalued elements of the earlier films, the problems created by their absence here underscoring their importance, but it mostly succeeds as a light and breeze caper movie without a clear antagonist, without a strong directorial vision and with an over-extended third act.

Getting the gang together.

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Non-Review Review: Unsane

This film was seen as part of the Audi Dublin International Film Festival 2018.

Unsane is off the wall.

The movie simply should not work, by just about any conceivable measure. Unsane is at once a conspiracy thriller criticism of the hypercapitalist impulses of the American healthcare system and a self-aware trashy nineties psychothriller about a young professional woman who may or may not be dealing with a stalker, all shot on an iPhone. It is One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest meets Single White Female meets Tangerine. It is astounding that the film works as well as it does, that Unsane remains compelling and engaging even as it careens off the tracks.

A large part of this is down to a fantastic central performance by Claire Foy, who holds the thematically loopy and surreal adventure together through sheer force of will. Unsane subjects its protagonist to a cavalcade of horrors and twists, any one of which blatantly absurd upon even the most cursory of examinations. However, Foy anchors the film in a compelling and engaging central performance to manages to keep the audience both off-balance and sympathetic at the same time. It is a deft (and impressive) balancing act.

Similarly, writer and director Steven Soderbergh also deserves a great deal of credit for keeping Unsane from completely unspooling. For all the chaos and absurdity of the film, for all the tonal shifts and weird contrivances, for all the trashy genre tropes and gonzo plotting, it never feels like Unsane escapes its director. Soderbergh walks a fine line, producing a film that veers wildly and unpredictably, while also seeming to know exactly what it is doing. The result is bizarre, but engaging. It might be too much to describe Unsane as good, but it is good fun.

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Non-Review Review: Behind the Candelabra

It’s a shame that Behind the Candelabra didn’t receive a theatrical release in the United States. It’s a shame for a lot of reasons. For one thing, it’s a shame that the studios think so little of American audiences that they’d refuse a relatively meagre $5m budget for a Liberace biopic which was “too gay.” It’s a shame that Steven Soderbergh’s last film will not be shown in American cinemas, given his recent discussions about the state of the medium. It’s a shame that none of the talented people involved in the film (from Michael Douglas through to make-up artists Todd Kleitsch and Christine Beveridge) will never garner the awards attention they so sorely deserve.

It’s also a shame because Behind the Candelabra is just a damn fine piece of cinema, and one which deserves a little time on the big screen.

Cloaked in mystery...

Cloaked in mystery…

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Non-Review Review: Welcome to the Punch

This film was seen as part of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival 2013.

Welcome to the Punch is a weird best, a sort of a hybrid that runs on a engine built of mismatched parts. It’s very clearly a distinctly British film. the presence of Mark Strong and James McAvoy attests to that, let alone the supporting cast composed of people like Daniel Mays, Jason Flemyng, Davide Morrissey, Peter Mullen and Andrea Riseborough. However, it’s constructed in the style of an American action movie, with lots of guns, explosions and chases. It’s a very strange cocktail, and Welcome to the Punch suffers because it doesn’t blend the strength of both schools of thrillers. It feels rather clumsily, and rather hastily, thrown together without any real thought as to what the final composition might turn out like.

Top gun...

Top gun…

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Non-Review Review: Side Effects

This film was seen as part of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival 2013.

On one level, Side Effects is a deliciously pulpy medical thriller, with the kind of zig-zagging twisty plot that you’d expect from a Michael Crichton novel. It’s more than satisfying on these terms, almost serving as a feature-length pilot for an imaginary medical drama starring Jude Law. After all, with House off the air, there’s a clear gap in the market for a smooth English actor playing the lead in an unconventional medical drama. If he is sarcastic, all the better. While the genius of the early years of House came from mashing up the medical subgenre with the police procedural to produce a then-unique hybrid, Scott Z. Burns instead blends the medical drama with a decidedly more trashy and sordid thriller to provide a satisfyingly twisty drama.

However, on another level, Side Effects teases issues that are far more interesting than the movie it eventually becomes. It’s very frustrating when your red herrings feel like they’d produce a more thoughtful or insightful piece of cinema than the final story. Side Effects broaches topics that mainstream cinema hasn’t really engaged with, and the opening scenes flirt with the idea of providing an entirely different film. It’s not always fair to judge a film for what it isn’t, but the problem is that Side Effects sets up a much more tempting and intriguing look at medicine than we get with the final product.

Love isn't the only drug...

Love isn’t the only drug…

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